Prescription abuse is a growing problem for women. Learn how to ensure you don’t get hooked.
When Holly*, 24, was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), she thought that taking her prescription medication would change her life for the better. Instead, she became hooked on the drug and is still struggling with addiction four years later.
Holly’s troubles began back in 1999, when she was 20 years old. She’d tried attending college but dropped out after finding it hard to focus. “I didn’t have the motivation and discipline to finish tasks,” she recalls. Her doctor diagnosed her with ADD and prescribed Adderall, a stimulant that heightens alertness. Holly filled the prescription and took one of the pills immediately. “It made me feel euphoric,” she says. “I was confident, attentive, and excited about my future.”
But within about a month, Holly was building up a tolerance to the medication. “The good feeling would wear off quickly, and I’d be left in a depressed state,” she says, “and that began the cycle.” Within three months of popping her first Adderall, Holly was taking three times the prescribed amount daily, and soon she was polishing off an entire month’s worth in one week. Then she would struggle through extreme physical and mental exhaustion until she could renew her prescription.
Eventually, Holly’s addiction forced her to leave her job as a bank teller, and she began stealing from her parents’ bank account to pay her bills. “My life had spun out of control,” says Holly. When she eventually got caught stealing, Holly admitted her addiction to her family and her doctor and quit Adderall, and she is now working on putting her life back together. “I tried to fool myself into thinking I had this problem under control, but I was just running in circles,” she says.
The Sneakiest Sickness
Like most women, Holly believed that a prescription medication couldn’t harm her. “People think if it’s a doctor prescribed pill, it’s automatically safe,” says Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation, a nonprofit organization for addiction treatment, research, and education.
It’s this semblance of safety that makes this sort of drug so insidious and allows even responsible people who wouldn’t mess around with street drugs to abuse them. And the number of people who do so is growing: A whopping six million Americans aged 12 and older were using prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in 2002, according to the latest survey from the government’s SUbstance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration (SAMHSA). And there’s been an especially dramatic rise in prescription drug abuse among young people. In 1992, fewer than 7 percent of people aged 18 to 25 had ever used prescription pain relievers nonmedically, but by 2002, that number had increased to 22 percent.
The drugs that have seen the most dramatic rise in abuse are pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, which are most often prescribed for knee or back pain, headaches, and after surgery. Two other commonly abused drugs are tranquilizers and sedatives, such as Xanax, which is meant to alleviate anxiety, and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall, which treat ADD, according to Clifford Bernstein, MD, medical director of the Waismann Institute, a substance-abuse treatment center in Beverly Hills, California.
* Names have been changed.
How Addiction Happens
One fatal mistake that leads to addiction is taking more of the drug than you’re prescribed. “This misuse creeps into dependence. Your body craves the medication, and you believe that you can’t live without it,” says H. Westley Clark, MD, the director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at SAMHSA.
That’s exactly what happened to Holly, who went beyond the prescribed pill limit to chase the feeling of euphoria that Adderall gave her. For Sadie, the pat to addiction was more gradual She started taking the painkiller Vicoprofen after she suffered a neck injury in a car crash in 2001, when she was 31 years old. After two years, she felt the meds weren’t working as well, and her doctor coupled her prescription with OxyContin. During this time, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Sadie was responsible for administering his highly potent prescription painkiller, Dilaudid.
The temptation to numb her physical as well as emotional pain proved too great, and in June 2003, Sadie decided to replace her own pain meds with her father’s much stronger one. “There was a euphoric feeling when I first took the drug, and it helped me function. Soon I was taking it nearly every day.” It’s not uncommon for people on prescription painkillers to try to up the ante. “Once they’ve built up a tolerance to their prescription, they’ll even graduate to street drugs such as heroin,” says Dr. Bernstein. When she tried to quit less than two months later, Sadie realized she was in a deep, dark hole. “It had a vise grip around me. I couldn’t do it.”
The Gender Divide
It’s especially important for young women to know the dangers of prescription drug abuse, because studies suggest women are as much as 48 percent more likely than men to be prescribed one of these addictive drugs, according to a research report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Dr. Bernstein says this may be because women are more inclined to open up tot heir physicians about feeling stress or pain.
What’s particularly alarming is evidence that women are also more likely than men to develop a problem with these drugs according to new research published in the American Journal of Public Health. And the NIDA report found that young women become addicted to anti-anxiety drugs at almost twice the rate of men. Why women are more vulnerable isn’t well understood. According to Dr. Clark, genetics may play a role, but a woman’s emotional state, including whether she’s depressed or a victim of abuse, may also be a predisposing factor.
A Rocky Road to Recovery
Like Holly, Sadie has beaten her addiction and is trying to pull her life back together. Soon after her father’s death, she enrolled in the Waismann Institute treatment program. “I promised my dad that I wouldn’t stay on that track – or else I probably would not make it to 35,” says Sadie, who plans to go back to school to study psychology.
Holly is also focusing on the future but says the call of the pills still haunts her. “The psychological addiction is always with me,” says Holly, who is sending out her resume after not working in three years. “But I’m motivated [to get better] because of the pain I caused my parents, and I have dreams for myself.© 2004 Cosmopolitan. All Rights Reserved.